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Florida surgeon general calls for halt on mRNA covid vaccines, citing debunked claim

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Florida’s top health official called for a halt to using mRNA coronavirus vaccines on Wednesday, contending that the shots could contaminate patients’ DNA — a claim that has been roundly debunked by public health experts, federal officials and the vaccine companies.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo’s announcement, released as a state bulletin, comes after months of back-and-forth with federal regulators who have repeatedly rebuked his rhetoric around vaccines. Public health experts warn of the dangers of casting doubt on proven lifesaving measures as respiratory viruses surge this winter.

“We’ve seen this pattern from Dr. Ladapo that every few months he raises some new concern and it quickly gets debunked,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s public health school who led the White House’s national coronavirus response before stepping down last year. “This idea of DNA fragments — it’s scientific nonsense. People who understand how these vaccines are made and administered understand that there is no risk here.”

Ladapo issued the bulletin as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), his political patron, fights to stay alive in the Republican presidential primary, in which he trails former president Donald Trump by more than 40 percentage points in head-to-head polls. The Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest, are slated to be held Jan. 15.

“Providers concerned about patient health risks associated with COVID-19 should prioritize patient access to non-mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and treatment,” Ladapo wrote.

Florida surgeon general used ‘flawed’ vaccine science, faculty peers say

Florida’s health department did not immediately respond to questions about whether Ladapo’s new stance would affect vaccine access for the state’s patients and health providers, or whether his decision to repeat debunked claims could create doubts about other routine vaccinations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that Florida lags far behind most states when it comes to the percentage of its population that has received an updated booster dose. Meanwhile, covid hospitalizations have been on the rise nationally, with almost 30,000 Americans newly hospitalized the week of Dec. 23.

Scott Rivkees, a DeSantis appointee who preceded Ladapo as Florida surgeon general before stepping down in September 2021, called Wednesday’s announcement “surprising and disappointing” and at odds with settled science about the safety of coronavirus vaccines. But current DeSantis officials praised the announcement.

“Grateful to live in a state where Big Pharma does not dictate health policy recommendations,” Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis campaign official, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, where she thanked Ladapo “for standing up for scientific integrity.” The DeSantis campaign did not respond to questions about whether the governor coordinated with Ladapo on the announcement or whether he would adopt a similar position if elected president.

Ladapo’s move was lauded by a network of anti-vaccine allies, who have repeatedly claimed that the shots are ineffective as they push their own treatments with little or no scientific evidence.

Polling has shown that Republicans remain disproportionately skeptical of the coronavirus vaccines, a position sometimes amplified by GOP politicians: 55 percent of Republican respondents vowed that they would “definitely not get” the vaccine compared with 12 percent of Democrats, according to November polling released by health policy researchers at KFF.

Studies also suggest that differences in vaccination attitudes — and GOP voters’ lower uptake of the vaccine — have been linked to Republicans dying at higher rates than Democrats from the coronavirus after vaccines became widely available in April 2021.

Trump has wanted to tout Operation Warp Speed, his 2020 initiative to successfully accelerate the development of coronavirus vaccines. But he talks about the vaccine sparingly on the 2024 trail and has expressed surprise to advisers about how much his supporters seem to dislike the vaccine, two advisers told The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to relay private discussion. Trump’s campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Trump advisers note that DeSantis had used federal funds to promote the vaccines in Florida before taking a more skeptical tone.

Experts slam Florida surgeon general’s warning on coronavirus vaccines

Ladapo’s claims about coronavirus vaccines are grounded in politics, not science, said David Gorski, a Wayne State University professor of surgery and oncology and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, which debunks misinformation in medicine.

“I’ve never seen a state health authority parrot anti-vaccine disinformation as a justification for stopping the use of a vaccine that has saved so many lives before,” Gorski said. “The Republican Party has adopted anti-vaccine, anti-public health ideology of this sort as part of its belief system.”

Federal officials on Wednesday also reiterated their confidence in the mRNA vaccines, which were developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech and have been widely used since their global introduction in late 2020. More than 1.5 billion people around the world have received the vaccines, company spokespeople told The Post.

“It’s one of the most studied vaccines at this point,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen said, emphasizing she and her family are vaccinated.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has authorized or approved several iterations of the coronavirus vaccines, on Wednesday stressed the shots’ “safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality.”

“Perpetuating references to information about residual DNA in COVID-19 vaccines without placing it within the context of the manufacturing process and the known benefits of the vaccine is misleading,” FDA spokeswoman Cherie Duvall-Jones said in a statement.

Ladapo, a Harvard-trained physician and researcher who had not specialized in infectious disease, gained national attention writing columns in the Wall Street Journal that raised questions about public health interventions throughout the pandemic. The columns attracted the attention of DeSantis, who picked Ladapo in 2021 to oversee a roughly 15,000-person health department in the nation’s third-most populous state.

In that role, Ladapo has increasingly amped up his warnings about the safety of the vaccines, often joined by colleagues and media personalities. He appeared on the podcast of Del Bigtree, who led the anti-vaccine group Informed Consent Action Network before announcing this week that he joined Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign as the independent candidate’s communications director. Ladapo also has appeared in an online program hosted by Stew Peters, a far-right media personality who has called for former presidential medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci to be hanged.

Ladapo’s stances have drawn him into conflict with the FDA and federal officials who say his claims are baseless — and dangerous.

“We stand firmly behind our regulatory decision-making with the authorizations and approvals of the COVID-19 vaccines,” Peter Marks, the FDA’s top vaccine official, wrote to Ladapo on Dec. 14. “The challenge we continue to face is the ongoing proliferation of misinformation and disinformation about these vaccines which results in vaccine hesitancy that lowers vaccine uptake.”

Rivkees, the former Florida surgeon general, cited state data showing more than 8,000 covid deaths in Florida last year — and “the vast majority are likely to be vaccine-preventable if people are up to date on their current vaccines.”

“If you’re going to take mRNA vaccination off the table … and if you’re not giving guidance to residents of Florida as to what to do to protect against covid, this is something that is a major deviation from public health,” Rivkees said.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.





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